Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, April 18, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, April 18, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest Hollyood and indie movie offerings, and the art of film.

Today let's talk about "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and other Judd Apatow dude-centric comedies. Are we sick of the clumsy guy-dork at the center of the rom-com, as seen in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and "Superbad"? Or is there a limitless comic reservoir where man's cluelessness in matters of life and love are concerned?

Thomson, a movie critic at The Washington Post for 15 years, was raised in England where he was entranced, like most, by Hollywood movies. It was a visit to see David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," that made him realize movies had to be a part of his life.

A transcript follows.


Desson Thomson: Hello movie fans and gawkers, lurkers, voyeurs and all else-ers. We are here on this glorious day to talk about the flicks. The talkies. The movies. Share, discuss, compare, contrast, complain or revere. Up to you.


Arlington, Va.: Desson, are you excited about seeing Ben Stein's documentary, "Expelled"? And what does "not previewed for reviewers" mean?

Desson Thomson: Well, it means about 99.9 times out of a 100 that the distributors have no confidence that any critic in the entire continent of North American will view it kindly. Hmm, what does that tell you?


Ocala, Fla.: As a big fan of "Veronica Mars" and "How I Met Your Mother," I am glad to see that FSM is getting such favorable reviews as smart and funny, the two prominent traits of those shows.

An now for something completely different, what do you think of Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream"? I watched it on DVD, and despite the excellent acting, I felt that the film was too stylized. The moviemaking got in the way of the movie.

Desson Thomson: I agree with you, Ocala, that the filmmaking gets in the way, when it comes to Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" and his other work. But to quote the well known line from the Seinfeld show: Not that there's anything wrong with that. To watch Aronofky's films is to watch the mind of the filmmaker in the foreground and the movie or the story in the background. When we read books by many of the great authors, we see the story through their idiosyncratic prisms as well. We like some, we dislike others. Personally, I tend to admire Aronofky's style more than I like his actual movies. I enjoy them as brilliant spectacle but they don't particularly move me in the way that more conventionally made but content-beautiful movies do.


Arlington, Va.: I'm undecided about the upcoming X-Files sequel. For one, it's been 10 years now since the first movie, and about 5 since the series ended. It almost strikes me as too little too late.

I'm also rather surprised that it's not going to be an alien invasion film, but an "earthbound story," as the reports tell it. The alien angle was really the crux of the whole show, and something will just feel missing without it -- especially given the way the series ended.

Desson Thomson: I hear you. It's a show from a long time ago at this point, but it doesn't mean they can't make it work. The whole point of a movie version of a show is to break new ground while, at the same time, re-evoking the spirit of the original. A challenging task. I like the idea of it being an earthbound story - it sounds intriguing - just because it's a surprise. And what's to lose for the fans? I mean, no movie's going to take away from the magic of the series for them anyway.


No Count, RY: SPOILER ALERT: I know we have covered the ending before, but last chat really made me think, I even watched the movie again. Now I think the ending is great. The Coen brothers made a movie with two different stories. The story that captivated us most the first time was Anton and the drug money, but this was something of a McGuffin. It is just like Psycho, and that is why the "main" character dies. The Anton story is intense and pressing and amoral and horrifying. The point of the film is the Tommy Lee Jones story, which I mostly ignored the first time I watched. It is about moral men aging and realizing that life does not work on a set of righteous rules, but is rather a place of ambiguity where the good guys get shot on their porches and die in front of their wives. The ending is great because TLJ talks about dreaming of his father, and he realizes that he is not the first to take this journey and that their is a brightness (the fire his father had), maybe faith, and that when his journey ends he'll be safe. The people who are disappointed by the ending remind me of the great line from Barton Fink (after he finally turns in his masterpiece), "I wanted a wrestling picture, not a picture about a man wrestling with his soul."

Desson Thomson: I think this is the smartest take on the movie I have read so far.


Capitol Heights, Md.: Hello Desson, you won't believe that my husband and I are still trying to dissect the movie "The Departed." We watched it again last night and we were trying to figure out, who did what, how did he know that, we just figured out this morning, that DiCaprio was probably the one who told the police where to find the undercover cop's body that was buried in the mud somewhere. Are we right, or are we the only crazy ones who do this?

Desson Thomson: You are NOT crazy. Only insane. But seriously, yes, that movie is rich with plot and it takes serious attention - maybe with 2 people tag-teaming - to keep track of everything. I have watched it several times and found new things each time. ( I am always humbled by the revelations that further viewings of a movie yield. Makes me mortified at the reviews I have written, thinking about how little I knew about the movie at the time--and THOUGHT I KNEW. Yikes)


Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: Saw "Married Life" last weekend -- excellent actors (Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan among others), and interesting plot, but for me it was S L O W. Am I watching too many "smash, bang" flicks these days, or did this film need some cutting/changes?

Desson Thomson: I sorta liked its slowness. Methodical. I thought it worked. And the arcs of the characters were moving with deceptive velocity. But you liked it, which is good. I think we all need to slow down at the movies, in direct response to the hyper speed narratives - usually fractured - that are forced on us, all in the name of state of the art hipdom.


Falls Church, Va.: Desson,

I saw the "Indiana Jones" trailer last night during Smallville. Looks pretty good and I don't know what they did to Harrison Ford but he looks at least 20 years younger.

Desson Thomson: You can do a lot with technology. But I am not sure in the case of Indiana what they may or may not be doing. Interesting. I'll have to check that out.


Washington, D.C.: I don't know how you can say that "Requiem for a Dream" didn't move you, I cry at the end everytime I see that movie.

Desson Thomson: I am sure you were moved and that's great. We all get to have our own reaction, thank goodness for you and for me. I saw that movie when it came out and not since. So maybe I owe it to myself to see again. At the time, I felt like the style of the movie, its technique, got in the way of the emotional story for me. All those repetitive cuts and loud sound effects and so on. It kept me wired and on edge more than emotionally affected.


Butternut, Wisc.: Hi, Desson!

Are you having expectations for the upcoming 'Mamma Mia!' movie?

Desson Thomson: Hey Butternut. I skied a few times on a slope called Butternut in the Berkshires. I know that's not the same thing. Just feeling associative for a moment. And I want to admit to the world right now that I have a guilty pleasure when I hear Abba songs. When they came out and I was wee self absorbed David Bowie-uber-alles snotnose in England, I despised them and their cheeesy pop hooks and lyrics. Now I have come to appreciate them as really great pop songs. The same thing happened to me with the Carpenters. I wanted to pound metal nails into my brain when I hear those songs back then. But after watching Todd Haynes's brilliant "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," which retells the sad story of Karen Carpenter with Barbie dolls, those songs became different, laced with sad foreboding. They haunt me now. Incidentally that Haynes movie was yanked soon after its release for not clearing the rights of the Carpenter tunes, and (I think) for not exactly pleasing Mattel or the Carpenter family. It's one of those cult classics now. To be seen in hushed, dark basements with secret handshakes.


Park falls, Wisc.: Hi, Desson!

I heard on NPR that the "Horton hears a Who!" movie is sexist. Is this true?

Desson Thomson: That's interesting. I did not get that sense when I saw it. Slipped by my Swiss cheese sensibilities, I guess. I'd be curious to hear more about that.


4 Months, ...: It's embarrassing, but this forum is anonymous, so I'll share: I'm a film buff, and for the first time in my life I had to remove myself from the theater. The 40 minutes or so that I saw I thought was good, but I simply could not handle the anxiety and (subtitled) descriptions.

I'm a 30-yr-old male who had no problem with the gynecological aspects of "Dead Ringers." Nevertheless, "4 Months" made me sick...literally. Which is a good thing, I suppose.

Desson Thomson: Yes, it IS a good thing. For at least two reasons. 1) You are a human being with real reactions and still able to take action at something that upsets you - walking out. Good for you. And 2) it shows that movies are powerful things indeed and can cause people to walk out.


Laurel, Ma.: Hey Desson!

Happy Friday to ya!

Have you seen trailers for Ben Stiller's upcoming "Tropic Thunder?" I can't get over the transformation of Robert Downey Jr! I'm hearing some small controversy but I'm a 30-year-old black woman and I don't find anything offense about it all. He looks fantastic, I can't wait to see it and I don't even care for Ben Stiller movies like that (although Meet the Parents was funny). Oh! A sidenote -- isn't it cool to see how Robert Downey Jr. has gotten himself together? He's always been a talented actor even when he was indulged in other activities.

Desson Thomson: You are referring to a movie in which Downey plays a black actor who is dropped into a Vietnamese jungle to make a movie--after which he and his fellow actors (including Ben Stillers) find themselves in some real trouble. I am very glad to hear you take no offense. That's a good sign that the performance is a good one and honest, as opposed to exploitative. This is what Downey is quoted as saying recently about it:

"If it's done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago. If you don't do it right, we're going to hell."

Downey explained that he kept the character from becoming a caricature because he "dove in with both feet."

"If I didn't feel it was morally sound," he said, "or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I'm just C. Thomas Howell in ("Soul Man"), I would've stayed home."


Herndon, Va.: Mr.T: the "Ben Stein" movie -- "Expelled"(?) For an interesting story on it, go to the Skeptic Society's Web site -- Skeptic-- the link is on the "front page." Among other revelations -- the audience shown during Stein's lecture at Pepperdine University is all invited extras -- hardly a student in the bunch.

Desson Thomson: Interesting. I'll certainly pass that along!


Washington, D.C.: I don't know how much TV you get to watch, but how about that Laura Linney? She has been amazing as Abigail Adams. Her portrayal is so much more than the makeup (or lack thereof). Anyone can put on a fake nose and become the character. She has a way of embodying the plainness and the humility that is so unlike anyone else out there.

No question, just a comment!

Desson Thomson: And a very good comment too. I have been watching the show too. She is terrific, as is Paul Giamatti who plays John Adams. What she does so well as an actor is respond very well. While this may sound like simply returning the shot over the net - to use a tennis analogy - it actually ups the ante. The way she responds makes her respective partner in the scene have to up his or her game too. It's fascinating to watch her work. And yes she makes the plain character - or seeemingly plain - resonate with surprising color.

In a moment we're going to post a recent article I did on Linney for the Washington Post, which reiterates some of what I just said.


Bethesda, Md.: I saw an ad on IGN last night for the DVD for Teeth. After reading it, this is DEFINITELY a movie I'll skip.

Desson Thomson: Yes, I can understand that. This movie has a plot conceit a little too jarring to get into detail about--on this family friendly Web site. But people can check it out for themselves. I do know that Jess Weixler won a Jury prize for her acting at the Berlin film festival. Nuff about that.

_______________________ Laura Linney's career as an actor's actor ( Post, Feb. 10)


Washington, D.C.: Hi Desson,

From a previous chat, you and other readers were discussing what types of violence they could not watch in movies. I found it interesting that so many people focused on cruelty to animals as the most difficult to watch. For me personally, it will always be any kind of violence/rape/sexual abuse that is most difficult to watch. It was extremely difficult for me to get through The Accused and Bastard out of Carolina because of the horrifying scenes. I could list others, but I think my point is clear. I'm not saying animal cruelty and death isn't sad and disturbing, but just thought it was interesting that no one else mentioned other types of violence. Thanks.

Desson Thomson: Very interesting. And yes I did ask people to share that. And I am still compiling people's comments for a forthcoming article. So maybe you'd like to e mail me and tell me a little more about this. And in the few minutes we have left I'd like to invite anyone who'd like to, to send me their thoughts and feelings about their own personal thresholds when it comes to movies. What are your private rules that you have about movies? What will you not tolerate that might be a surprise? And what is it about you, do you think, that makes you draw the line at that particular thing? My e mail is


Rockville, Md.: Desson: You are a great writer! How do you do it? And is it true that you are also a lead singer in a rock band? And you wear a kilt? You rock! And waltz! And hip hop!

Desson Thomson: I keep telling my wife not to send things to this website. But she can't help herself. Honey? Dial it down, okay? Oh wait ... let me read this again.

Great writer - check

How I do it - God given, man.

Lead singer? - check

Kilt? - check or should I say "plaid"?

And do I rock? - Do I ever! Is Paris a city?? You can see my band at the Outa the Way Cafe in Rockville this May 9.

Okay, enough of this....


Lexington, Miss.:


Qre you like British or something? What's up with "Desson"?

Desson Thomson: Yes I am Q-ritish.

Desson is .... a name.


Freising, Germany: John Anderson's review of "Flight of the Red Balloon" is an interesting reminder of how talented people and interesting ideas can be dismissed with the flick of a pen (or computer keyboard).

I've never heard of Hou Hsiao-hsien before, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for him in the future. Juliette Binoche rings a bell, however. What has she been in that's been worth seeing? 'Flight of the Red Balloon': A Soaring Achievement ( Weekend, April 18)

Desson Thomson: It was a great piece by John Anderson, and although I haven't seen that film yet, I intend to. Sounds great doesn't it? I am not sure if you are serious about not being aware of Binoche. But if you are, there are many films worth seeing that she's been in, including "The English Patient," "Dan in Real Life," "Cache" (aka Hidden), Decalage horaire", "Trois couleurs: Bleu," "The Unbearabe Lightness of Being" and many more.


Alexandria, Va.: Four matches to go. Need 7 points (or 4 if we beat Chelsea). I need a drink.

Desson Thomson: Go on you Reds!


Bethesda, Md.:

Hate to be slightly off-topic here, but still a movie query: I think "There Will Be Blood" is the best movie so far of the decade. Do you agree, or would you bash my head with a bowling pin for saying so?

Desson Thomson: Haha. No bashing. But I did love that movie.


Los Angeles, Calif.: My problem with the Apatow and imitators' genre of shlubby dork clueless guy films is that they inexplicably get beautiful, smart and funny women who would never in a million years settle for the aforementioned shlubby dork. Knocked Up, anyone? I couldn't get ten minutes into that film. Having said that, the reviews for Forgetting Sarah Marshall have been somewhat reassuring and I'm giving it a shot on Saturday.

Desson Thomson: I hear you on the beautiful women - dumb guy thing. But definitely give Sarah Marshall a shot. I liked it. As today's review in the Post shows.


River City: I agree with Washington, D.C., I could NOT watch the rape scene in Platoon -- the only movie I've ever walked out on.

I love intrigue, being scared, but cannot watch any slasher movies. Saw is the limit, I can not watch such sadistic violence that is the only point of the whole movie.

Desson Thomson: River, you are a good sensible human being. I despise torture movies and the people and the studios who make them. And no one should draw pride in going to see them either.


Desson Thomson: And on that scolding teacher note - sorry! - I close our session. Thanks everyone and talk to you all in a week or two. Enjoy the sun. Get out of the office!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company